Feb 7 2002 – Two primary school pupils have become embroiled in a major political row in Singapore after their parents sent them to school in the traditional Islamic headscarf, despite a government ban on the garment.
Clutching the hands of family members, the two girls had little idea of the storm surrounding them as they went to their classes yesterday, only to be suspended immediately for wearing the Malay Muslim tudung.
The Singapore government has been caught between the sensitive issues of religious freedom and social cohesion after the recent detention of 13 suspected Muslim militants.
The families of the two girls had until last Monday to comply with state policy barring the tudung and other non-standard clothing, but they chose to stand against the government and flout the deadline.
Nurul Nasihah and Siti Farwizah Mohamad Kassim started their first year of school last month.
The education ministry said that the girls had been, “suspended from school and are not allowed to attend classes unless they are in the prescribed school uniform”. It added: “The wearing of the school uniform is an important means of building unity among students without distinction of race, religion, and social status.”
There are 450,000 Malaysians in Singapore, making them the second largest ethnic group in the city state. The majority of these are Muslim.
For devout Malay Muslims, the tudung is only obligatory once girls reach puberty. However, some parents have their children wear it from a tender age to instil the traditions of Islam. Nurul was suspended by her school immediately after arriving for class.
Mohamad Nasser, her father, said: “What can I do? The government is not giving me any leeway. My daughter’s education is as important as my faith, my
Six-year-old Siti spent about two hours in class before her father fetched her, on news of the suspension.
Asked whether he would take the dispute to the courts, Siti’s father refused to comment, but said: “I can always make an appeal.”
Two other young girls have also been caught up in the dispute. Khairah Faroukh, who began wearing a headscarf two weeks into the school year, has until February 11 to comply with the dress code or face suspension, according to the ministry.
A fourth Muslim family have taken their daughter out of school to be educated at home after she was banned from wearing the tudung.
Goh Chok Tong, the Singapore prime minister, said that the courts were best placed to deal with the issue of the tudung. However, he hoped that Singaporeans would instead focus on rebuilding the state’s recession-hit economy.
The opposition Singapore Democratic Party said the government could not preserve racial harmony by mandating a dress code. A spokesman said: “In fact, such a myopic and insensitive ruling will only lead to greater resentment among those being coerced, resulting in an even more polarised society.”
Singapore, whose Chinese majority outnumbers the Malay and Indian communities by three to one, experienced violent race riots in 1964 but has largely enjoyed ethnic peace since then.
Muslim leaders in the country emphasised the moderate attitudes in their community after the September 11 terrorist attacks on America.
That moderation continued despite anti-US anger in Indonesia and the arrest of 13 Muslims in Singapore who are suspected of plotting a bombing campaign.
However, the growing tension in the country is forcing the government to walk a tightrope, according to Bilveer Singh, associate professor of political science at the National University of Singapore.
He said: “They have to keep all the racial groups in balance while giving in to things which do not harm the national whole.”
Letter To The PM Of Singapore Goh Chok Tong
Below is a copy of a letter written by a concerned Singaporean Muslim lady and sent to the Singapore PM in response to the government’s actions.
Subject: Hijab in School
Dear Prime Minister
I will never forget 1 February 2002. On that day, your government managed to divide the Singapore society in a way that even the ISD arrests and the
threat of terrorism in Singapore did not. Four little girls had settled well in their respective schools and were doing what all little kids should do: study and make friends.
On Feb 1, your government required that these children be suspended, and deprived of their
education. Their crime? They dared to wear the tudung, a tiny piece of cloth that covered their heads.
Your grounds for suspension? They breached the school uniform rule, and the school uniform is necessary for children of different races to unite.
Dear Prime Minister, have you asked any of the classmates whether they had difficulty mixing with these girls because of their tudung? Has anyone
complained that the girls were not integrating with
their classmates because of the tudung? Believe me, no one who truly believes in racial harmony will
buy your government’s immature assertion that the
uniform is necessary to preserve unity. And repeating a cliche continuously does not make it any more believable.
Dear Prime Minister, have you also considered the
effect of your draconian action on the schoolmates of the affected children?
My niece, Ayeshah, is in White Sands. Although she had read the newspapers regularly and knew some ‘tudunged’ kids were facing suspension, she never
imagined her schoolmate, whom she had seen many times in the playground, was one of those affected. You see, she had so much trust in her principal that she told her mother rather proudly that Mrs Dhillon was unlike the principals mentioned in the news because she was allowing a child to practise her faith in peace. She was distraught on
Friday when she found out that one of the three children was indeed from White Sands. She was
shattered. This was a child who truly believed
everyone in Singapore mattered regardless of race and religion and felt that she was as important
as any non-Muslim. Now she has her doubts. She does
not wear the tudung regularly, but certainly hoped to wear it when she was slightly older. Now
she knows she may never be able to do it in school,
and she feels her rights have been violated.
I attach with this mail a copy of her entry in her
school journal, addressed to her teacher. I hope you take time to read it.
You may think that we adults have been feeding all the wrong ideas into her head, but it is not true. Any thinking child can see that your actions are
As for your argument that Sikhs are allowed their
turbans because it was allowed during the colonial times … are you then saying that the colonial
government had greater respect for the religious
rights of their subjects than the democratically elected government of our independent republic? I do not begrudge the Sikh his right to wear his turban.
Islam requires me to respect the rights of others, and freedom of religion is a cardinal principal of my faith. Of course, we are also required to speak up for our rights .. hence this letter. Every Singaporean should support us if he or she truly believes that we all have a right to practise our respective religions (Art 15 of the Constitution) and that every one has a right to an education (Art 16).
As for the argument that by practising one’s religion in school, common space is breached … I ask how? As long as a request does not infringe on
anyone else’s rights, does not cost the school
anything financially, and can be validated by a respected religious authority, a request for the
modification of a school rule should not infringe on
common space. The school remains neutral, and the interaction between the children remains normal too. Common space is not breached by differences in skin colour … why should it be breached by slight differences in school uniform?
I wonder, if upper secondary school boys have an
option of wearing either long or short trousers in school, why can’t the same option be afforded to
girls? Isn’t that gender discrimination? And once that option is given to girls, why should the options be limited to upper secondary alone? Why not to all children who have reached puberty? And once that is deemed reasonable, a piece of cloth over one’s head will not seem so serious a matter any more. You see, Prime Minister, the modification of the school uniform to accommodate particular needs is not a difficult concept to visualize if you have the inclination to do so. But your government has chosen to take a rigid stand instead, and to politicise an otherwise simple
matter which could have been settled within the four
walls of the school.
Today I have been convinced of the need for an
opposition voice in Parliament. I voted for the PAP during the last elections, and was disappointed when Mr Low Thia Kiang won in Hougaug.
Now I am grateful he and Mr Chiam See Tong are there. I don’t know if it will happen, but at least I can hope that this matter will be discussed in
Parliament through an alternative voice.
On the same note, I’ld like to issue a challenge to
your government today, audacious as it may seem. You have said that your government will consider
creating a shadow cabinet that will debate the
government’s policies in parliament. I’ld like to hear this matter being debated through that milieu.
I do not want the Malay/Muslim MPs to be the ones to
raise the matter in Parliament as I do not think this issue concerns only Malays/Muslims but all
minorities. It is for that reason that I cc this
letter to so many of your MPs.
Lastly, I promise you, Mr Prime Minister, that until
this matter is resolved in a way that is humane, I for one will never believe what I read in the
papers about your government’s programmes to improve
racial harmony and integration. Your statement that Singaporeans should learn about each other and value each other smacks of the worst kind of
hypocrisy when at the same time you are depriving school children of the best opportunity to learn and accept each other as they are, ie in school.
For the message you have given Singaporeans in general is this: that it is alright to prevent a Singaporean from practising his religion in the name of unity and rules. You may say this is justified in schools, but how do you prevent
others from extending the same policy and justifying it in the outside working world as well? Can we say they are discriminatory when they are merely aping your actions?
I know this letter is not very gentle. It is not my
intention to be rude, but everything I say here comes from my heart, and I just have to let you
know how I feel. So as is the Muslim practice, I
apologise for the parts where I have been offensive in any way … please attribute it to the want of a better style rather than malice.
Before I end, let me just remind you of what the
father of one of the girls said when asked whether he was pursuing this matter in court, ‘I don’t want
Singapore to have a bad image.’ This is one Singaporean I am proud of. What a pity the government is not as gracious.
I look forward to hearing from you.
Noorunnisa d/o PK Ibrahim Kutty